Michael Gerson
Opinion writer December 5, 2011

In a season of curious political phenomena — Michele Bachmann’s unnerving stare, Herman Cain’s last-minute launch of “Women for Cain,” a planned debate hosted by a reality TV star who makes the Kardashians look cerebral — one development is curiouser than most: the buoyancy of Barack Obama.

The number of Americans who believe their country is on the wrong track exceeds those who think it on the right track by a whopping 54 percentage points. Just 34 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy. Yet his polling against a generic Republican opponent is dead even, and he leads head-to-head matchups with Mitt Romney (marginally) and Newt Gingrich (significantly).

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. View Archive

This is not to argue that Obama is in a strong or enviable position. If he were to have his current job approval of 43 percent on Nov. 6, 2012, his reelection would be unlikely. The incumbent is vulnerable.

But in light of objective conditions, Obama should be more vulnerable. Health-care reform, his signature presidential achievement, is durably unpopular. Economic growth under Obama has only slightly exceeded the average of the 1930s. Chronic unemployment and housing-market declines are at their worst levels since the Great Depression. The number of people in poverty has increased at a record rate. Federal spending and debt are at their highest share of the economy since World War II. America’s credit rating has been downgraded for the first time in our history.

So why does the 2012 election remain competitive?

First, despite their griping, Obama’s base still believes. Support among Democrats and African Americans is solid. Obama’s recent conversion to the old-time Democratic religion of class conflict — preached at Occupy Wall Street tent meetings — has rallied American liberalism. This approach has its limits. A message that shores up support from the left may complicate Obama’s appeal to independents. The construction of a 43 percent floor may also involve the construction of a ceiling not far above it. But Obama’s appeal to the political middle was no longer working. A base strategy was his only credible strategy, and it seems to have prevented a polling collapse.

Second, while voters may be disappointed with Obama’s job performance, they have not turned on Obama himself. His personal approval is strong. Here there is a significant gap between the American public and, well, me. I have often found Obama’s public manner to be professorial and off-putting. Americans seem to think it calm, self-possessed and reassuring. Even in his failures, Obama does not seem hapless. He fully inhabits the public role of commander in chief. And Obama’s commitment to his family — his protection of their privacy and normality — is widely admired.

The power of such favorable impressions should not be underestimated. Americans do not believe that Obama has succeeded, but they still want him to succeed.

Third, it is now evident to everyone but Republicans — who report themselves resolutely satisfied with their choices — that the Republican presidential field is weak. In a contest of Romney, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels, iron would have sharpened iron. Instead, the GOP race has been a series of trial balloons, popped by cluelessness, incompetence or impropriety. Each front-runner, in turn, seems inevitable just before becoming unimaginable. These episodes of manic enthusiasm, in retrospect, seem desperate and discrediting.

Republicans have currently settled on their two most skilled candidates: Romney and Gingrich. But both must still reassure independent voters that they are plausible as president. Even Americans unhappy with the current occupant of the White House must be sold on an alternative. Romney, who shares some of Obama’s imperturbability, would have a good chance of meeting the plausibility standard. Gingrich, given his habit of bombast, might have a tougher time of it. Either must develop a message that reaches beyond the conservative core.

Obama’s loyal base and personal appeal do not assure his reelection. While a campaign of personal attacks against the president would probably backfire, any Republican nominee would have a potent strategy at his or her disposal: the relentless application of damning economic statistics. Obama is vulnerable because his economic performance is poor — a verdict unlikely to be reversed before Election Day.

But Obama’s strange buoyancy should sober Republicans. To defeat him, they will require a nominee who makes few unforced errors and no unnecessary enemies.

michaelgerson@washpost.com

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